One of the great, iconic pianists of the 20th century – a master of the Romantic school of piano execution, and a celebrated interpreter of Chopin – Arthur Rubinstein (1886-1982) is perhaps best known for his unique tone, total command of the repertoire, joyful and enthusiastic public persona, and distinctive love of music evident in his every performance.
A recipient of the American Medal of Freedom (1976), he was also the first classical pianist to sell as many recordings as the leading rock stars of his day.
Rubinstein was a keyboard child prodigy who gave his first concert (in Berlin) at age 11 and his first U.S. concert (at Carnegie Hall) at age 19. He continued to perform into extreme old age and was a never-tiring workhorse who, over an incredible eight-decade career, gave over 6,000 performances around the world. As early as 1914, he promised never to perform in Germany, and after World War II, he declared that he could never perform for a German audience because he would envision being told, “Get out, dirty Jew!”
Although Rubinstein’s maternal grandparents, with whom he and his family lived in Lodz, were strictly Orthodox, his parents were not, and he received little religious education, despite the plethora of Jewish schools in Lodz. His family celebrated Friday night and Shabbat with his grandparents, but his parents viewed the Shabbat meal as merely “a pretext to bring the family together.”
His father, who had studied Talmud in his youth but was entirely unobservant, took him to synagogue only a few times and, even then, only for musical reasons – to hear a famous cantor perform. However, his father was an enthusiastic Zionist, which influenced Arthur’s later warmth for the Jewish state.
In preparation for his bar mitzvah, Rubinstein was forced to learn some Hebrew, and he resented having to “listen to the bored and monotonous voice of a man who tried to explain to about 50 of us the intricacies of the Hebrew language and the biblical interpretations of our existence.” His mother gave him a pair of tefillin, which he did not use; he found the gift of a watch “much more useful.”
Though keenly proud of his Jewish heritage, he married a Catholic woman and considered himself an agnostic; by his own account, he could never characterize himself as an atheist because “a musical gift like mine could not have come out of nowhere.” When a Christian tried to preach the gospel to him, he said, “Don’t worry about me. When I get to heaven, I have no problem. I am Jewish, and if Moses is there at the gate, he will let me in.”
From his early days in Eastern Europe, Rubinstein maintained a good command of Yiddish and a keen interest in Jewish traditions and Jewish lore. One of his early triumphs was winning the audience (but not the prize) at the 1910 Anton Rubinstein competition, which he attended, in part, to defy the St. Petersburg law barring Jews from being in that city for more than 24 hours.
On a concert tour that took him from Egypt to Greece in 1924, he made an unscheduled stop in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which he had longed to visit, during which he commented, “It made me happy to see the old soil where my Jewish brethren, in the Diaspora for 2,000 years, found a place again in their homeland.” He first played in Israel in 1927, returned in the early 1930s, and went on to give frequent concerts in Israel, beginning well before the founding of the state.
Although the Holocaust (during which Rubinstein lost most of his family) did not make him any more Jewishly observant, it did play a key role in making him a zealous Israel supporter. Toward the end of the British Mandate period, he threatened to cancel his concerts in London because he was furious about the British Government’s treatment of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, and he dedicated himself to public performances to support the new State of Israel.
He never refused an opportunity to express his support for it, including giving countless gala performances for it, performing with his beloved Israel Philharmonic at every opportunity, and giving recitals and master classes at the Jerusalem Music Centre.
In this beautiful June 29, 1948 correspondence to the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists, Inc. written during Israel’s War of Independence, Rubinstein clearly manifests his dedication to, and concern for, the “new State of Israel”:
I thank you for your kind letter of June 22 and felt honored that you want me to appear as soloist at Carnegie Hall at the concert in tribute to the new State of Israel. As you probably know, I have been following with the deepest concern the recent developments and feel closely connected to the cause of the young nation…
Upon my return from Europe, however, I am due to play with the Palestine Orchestra at a benefit concert on December 7  and hope that thru that contribution I will be able to make up, in part at least, for the occasion missed at that time.
From 1951 (during which he gave 20 concerts in 20 days) until 1976, Rubinstein visited Israel so often that Israelis considered him an integral part of their nation – and he rarely accepted a fee for performing there. Among the highlights of his performances in Israel were: playing 15 concertos during five evenings on the occasion of the country’s 10th anniversary and playing at the opening of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv as the new home for the Israel Philharmonic (1957).
Rubinstein’s many contributions went far beyond benefit concerts and recitals; he became a prominent supporter of Israeli causes and an outspoken advocate on behalf of Jews around the world. For example, he was outspoken in joining other prominent musicians in announcing that he would not perform with the Chicago Symphony if it engaged the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, the reviled “Nazi Conductor”; he publicly attacked famed Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin for his “soft stand vis-à-vis UNESCO’s censure of Israel”; and when UNESCO cut off support for Israel in 1975, he joined several pro-Israel protests and spoke out on the subject during his concerts, most conspicuously at Carnegie Hall.
Rubinstein passionately supported Israel’s retention of the territories it had conquered in 1967; he argued that Palestinians in Israel should be resettled in Jordan; and, when the Soviet Union began supporting Israel’s enemies, he even went so far as to urge the United States to bomb the USSR. Although his political views – including strong support for Menachem Begin and the Likud – were a source of great consternation to his colleagues, he maintained his deep support for Greater Israel.
Israel, in turn, loved Rubinstein and honored him by creating the Rubinstein Chair of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which the pianist endowed himself with earnings from his solo recitals in Israel); by planting a Rubinstein Forest; by creating, with Rubinstein’s assistance and support, the International Piano Master Competition, held in Israel and bearing his name; and by designating a special plot in a forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem for his burial.
In this January 2, 1953 correspondence, Rubinstein, expressing umbrage at the very idea that he would not fulfill all his commitments to Israel and to its orchestra, writes to Dr. K. Salomon of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, explaining that his demanding performance schedule prevents him from attending the inaugural Rubinstein Competition:
Your letter of November 30th distresses me a little bit. You reproach me in it for not keeping my promise to come to Israel in 52-53. As far as I remember, I never made such a promise, and I must assure you that if I did give a promise, I always keep it. My hope when I left Israel was to come to the Festival in Jerusalem to inaugurate the contest for the prize of my name for young musicians, and in connection with that to give a few concerts with my dear friend, the Israeli Philharmonic orchestra.
You see dear Doctor, it is not as easy as all that for me to come over to Israel, with so many engagements on my hands, with a tour in America consisting mostly of 70-80 concerts, with demands since years for tours in South America, Australia, South Africa, Japan, and the Philippines Islands, and last, but not least of all, the European countries still accessible to us – so you can see for yourself how difficult it is for me to find the right time for going to Israel…
Please communicate this letter to all my friends of the orchestra and tell them that it will be my greatest wish to come as often as I can because I have never enjoyed anything as much in my life as my last visit to Israel.
Rubinstein’s reference to “the Festival in Jerusalem to inaugurate the contest for the prize of my name for young musicians” is curious, given that the inaugural competition was held fully two decades later in Tel Aviv in 1974, with Rubinstein himself serving as a judge, Prime Minister Golda Meir in the audience, and famed American pianist Emanuel Ax winning the first gold medal. In an address at the prize distribution ceremony, Rubinstein declared that “the pride of my heart is that it [Israel] has never lost sight of culture, of music, of art, of love of life, of high spirit, of magnificent humanity.” He added, “This is the pride of this country. This is one of the reasons I love it so dearly, and so much, and so deeply.”
The competition takes place in Israel every three years; the Arthur Rubinstein Award is presented to “young master pianists whose talents reveal outstanding musicianship as well as the ability to render versatile, artistically convincing interpretations of works, ranging from the pre-classical to the contemporary.”
Exhibited here is the original stamp designer’s drawing of the Rubinstein “Picasso stamp,” shown with the final stamp (issued March 4, 1986) next to an incredible rarity: a stamp error with its colors entirely omitted. Rubinstein donated the original Picasso drawings to establish a fund for the Rubinstein Competition, and the issue of this stamp in honor of Rubinstein’s birth centennial coincided with the Fifth International Rubinstein Piano Competition, which opened the Year of Arts in Israel.
The Arthur Rubinstein Panorama, a memorial site on Mount Ora (near the Kennedy Memorial), includes a beautiful memorial stone and the sculpture tribute of stone pillars arranged at various angles that project like enormous, random piano keys. The pianist, who chose the spot overlooking his beloved Jerusalem hills as his final resting place, wanted his ashes to be spread over the Jerusalem forest, but Israel’s Chief Rabbis ruled that the public park falls within Jewish law governing cemeteries, and cremation is prohibited according to Jewish law.
After a yearlong effort by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, an agreement was reached pursuant to which the rabbis permitted a small plot to be set aside as non-public grounds, and Rubinstein’s ashes were interred there a year and a day after his death.
Rubinstein left five million dollars in his will to the city of Jerusalem, and there is an Arthur Rubinstein Street in Tel Aviv. As Kollek wrote in a tribute to Rubinstein, “his love for Jerusalem…was poetic and musical in its quality.” He noted that Rubinstein “loved every hill, every alley, and every corner of its walls.”
Thus, Rubinstein’s ultimate legacy includes not only his well-known contributions to music, but his lesser-known major contributions as a passionate Zionist and as a Jew forever dedicated to Jewish causes.